Never close a Catholic school?

3rd May 1996 at 01:00
The Secretary of State will not shirk his duty in difficult times. Raymond Robertson, the Education Minister, was dispatched to the Catholic headteachers' conference (page two), to reassure them that the Government would continue to be a backstop when local authorities light upon denominational schools as candidates for closure.

With so many closures already out for consultation across Scotland, ministers may yet regret their decision, but it is a welcome one. The interests of parents and communities have to be safeguarded, and a balance struck between councils' plans to rationalise provision and the need for access to a school in the locality, including a denominational one for parents who choose it.

Ministers will not necessarily heed parental clamour. They may even defy the wishes of the Catholic hierarchy, although it has had a successful record of impressing its will on this Government. Glasgow, to take the prime example, will have to close schools whether the final arbiter is the council or the Government. Despite their emphasis on parents' rights, ministers cannot on the one hand instruct councils to use resources efficiently and on the other hand thwart proposals for removing unused school places.

The primacy of parents' rights is bound to take a knock. Two other prized principles are at stake. The first is a school's opportunity to opt for self-governing status. Ministers remain embarrassed by the lack of interest in opting out, but they have made clear their determination not to see the legislation hijacked by parents anxious only to defy or delay a closure decision. If Michael Forsyth finds himself in a no-win situation, too bad.

The other principle Mr Forsyth has already undermined is his own wish to see power devolved to local level. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities in drawing up a list of powers councils might take from central government gave priority to decisions about school closures, amalgamations and catchment areas. Before deciding about the other 50 elements of Cosla's wish-list, Mr Forsyth has bravely retained possession of one poisoned chalice. He may think that a Labour successor in his office will have a harder time even than he in confronting councils, parents and the Catholic Church.

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